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Mormon historians are cheering the newly released English edition of LDS scriptures, pointing to new wording about race and polygamy that provides a more accurate and complexview of the Utah-based church and its sometimes-controversial past.
It marks the first time in more than 30 years that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has updated its four books of scripture the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price and the changes are generating lots of buzz among members, scholars and bloggers.
The new edition, already available online at scriptures.lds.org, includes hundreds of minor spelling and punctuation changes to the holy script, as well as more substantive (though subtle) alterations of chapter headings, study helps and historical descriptions.
"What this reveals is something all religions eventually have to wrestle with incorporating history into how we experience God," says American religion historian Matthew Bowman, who last year released a one-volume history of the LDS Church. "The most significant changes to this new edition emphasize the importance of understanding the culture and context these scriptures were produced in."
Taken together, says Bowman, a Latter-day Saint who teaches at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, the changes reflect an evolving and sophisticated understanding of that past and a "more thoughtful Mormonism going forward."
Among the biggest changes were new introductions to two documents toward the back of the "quad," as Mormons call a single volume of the four works.
The lead-in to Official Declaration 2, which describes the church's 1978 announcement to lift its ban on black males holding the faith's priesthood, makes clear that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had previously ordained several black men.
Subsequent LDS officials "stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent," the new introduction says. "Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice."
The new edition does not dispel any of the theological myths that arose to defend the practice, saying only that Mormon leaders believed it would take a revelation to undo the ban.
"I am thrilled by the new statement regarding blacks," says Darius Gray, former president of the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons. "The language is more forthcoming than anything we've previously had on the past priesthood restriction, so I take great pleasure in seeing the changes."
Still, they are "incomplete," Gray says. "There is more that needs to be done."
On polygamy, the new LDS scriptures alter the chapter headingto Doctrine & Covenants Section 132, which lays out the theology behind eternal marriage and plural marriage. They also provide a historical introduction to Official Declaration 1, known as "the Manifesto," which signaled a commitment to end the church's practice of polygamy in 1890.
Valerie Hudson, a Mormon political science professor at Texas A&M University, has argued previously that Mormon polygamy was a temporary exception and not an essential LDS doctrine.
"In these new introductions, we see that 'plural marriage' (notice, not 'plurality of wives') is to be viewed as a principle and not as a commandment, and that the 'standard' of marriage is monogamy," Hudson, co-author of "Sex and World Peace," writes in an email. "Small changes such as these can be momentous in their impact on the lives of current and future Saints, which is no doubt why they are attended to with such concern and finesse."
Brian Hales, an LDS researcher who just published a three-volume work, "Joseph Smith's Polygamy," sees the changes as "moving away from the 19th-century wording on polygamy" in some parts, while being more accurate to the history in others.
"We are admitting our past," he says, "better than we ever have before."
One other change brings a new perspective to questions surrounding a set of Egyptian papyri that Smith bought in the 1830s and claimed to "translate" into English. The text Smith produced became part of the faith's scripture and is known as the Pearl of Great Price, but critics charge that the Egyptian images reproduced in the book do not match Smith's text.
In the book's previous edition, it is called a "translation." This time around it says it is "an inspired translation," suggesting a more spiritual process.
Mormons seem pleased with the new versions.
"Pretty much everything I'm seeing is a victory for the more modern, scholarly approach to the scriptures with a greater awareness of modern sensibilities," Mormon blogger Julie M. Smith writes at timesandseasons.org, "and the removal of a few generations of unjustifiable accretions of tradition to the record."
Benjamin Park, an LDS doctoral student at Cambridge University, agrees.
"It teaches the lay reader that [Mormon] facts, quotes and issues aren't set in stone, nor are they easily decipherable," Park writes in an email. "Rather, it teaches them that there is complexity, nuance and even gray area. Sometimes, the most important thing to teach a member of the church is how history is done, not just what happened."
By August, members will be able to buy the new print version, though they need not do so, according to an LDS Church news release, because the updated edition does not change any page numbers or layout.
LDS officials, who commissioned these revisions eight years ago, seem excited by the product.
"The current edition of the scriptures, with its extensive study helps, will continue to serve Latter-day Saints very well," LDS apostle Neil L. Andersen says in the release. "This new edition incorporates adjustments that will be a blessing to church members in years to come."
Some of the changes
Section heading to Doctrine & Covenants 132
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage. Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831. See Official Declaration 1.
New introduction to Official Declaration 1:
The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God's standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise (see 2 Samuel 12:7–8 and Jacob 2:27, 30). Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s (see section 132). From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws to make this religious practice illegal. These laws were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.
New Introduction to Official Declaration 2:
The Book of Mormon teaches that "all are alike unto God," including "black and white, bond and free, male and female" (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith's lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood.
Samples of spelling and punctuation changes:
Gen. 8:11 "pluckt" to "plucked"
Alma 12:31"becoming as Gods" to "becoming as gods" (lowercased gods)
Hel. 13:17"the peoples'" to "the people's"